21st-Century Humans More Peaceful

With utter fascination last Wednesday night Nov. 20th, I watched one of my favorite PBS shows, NOVA. The title of the show was The Violence Paradox. The one hour show investigated how over the last 200,000 years Homo sapiens as a whole are living and dying less violently. In other words, comparatively speaking in the 21st century by the compiled numbers most human beings are living and dying more peacefully than in our past.

stevenpinkerIn his two published books The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and its sequel Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), cognitive psychologist, linguist, and Harvard Professor Steven A. Pinker states on the show:

We’ve done something right. Let’s figure out what it is and keep doing it. The reality is that we may be living in one of the most peaceful eras in human existence. Violence has been in decline, but that just doesn’t count as news. You just never see a journalist saying, “I’m reporting live, from a country that’s at peace,” or “a school that hasn’t been shot up.” Once I stumbled upon this graph, I mentioned it in a blog post, and then I received correspondence from scholars in a variety of fields, telling me that I could’ve made an even stronger case. I saw data-set after data-set, all of which showed declines in violence, in different parts of the world, with different kinds of violence. And I realized there was a story that needed to be told.

Enlightenment Now_PinkerHowever, Pinker wants to be clear about the explicit and implicit meaning of his findings so as not to be painted as a deluded optimist.

To point out that things were worse in the past is not to say we should relax, our problems are all solved, quite the contrary. It’s by understanding how our predecessors were able to drive down rates of violence that we can be emboldened to try to drive them down even further.

And this is where I was personally intrigued! How. How has this downward trend of violence, on the global scale, been achieved? What various factors and events have contributed to humanity’s gradual increase to more peaceful existences with each other?

I found the entire 1-hour 53-minute documentary to be powerful and yes, hopeful with tangible solutions and methods offered and that are in fact tried and tested for success, offering more reasons to keep this peaceful trend rising. What I found especially intriguing from the scientific and statistical findings was of the many factors scientists have connected to violence or peace, seven modern societal conditions and their related sub-conditions which guided humans either toward, hate, prejudice, and violence, or on a path of peace, collaboration, and prosperity. They were:

  • Government or State — the rule of law kept better peace
  • The Civilizing Process — economic order went hand in hand with social norms and manners, etiquette, self-control, etc.
  • Equality — learning about others with the same experiences (with empathy below)
  • Literacy — not just reading, but how much could be read about from a diverse continent or around our diverse world (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
  • Empathy — feeling deeply about someone else’s plight and/or prosperity (linked with equality)
  • Biggest World Powers — the top major powers/armies are not fighting, at the moment
  • Testosterone Levels — today violence is no longer an effective tool to get something done or achieve conquest as it was before. Non-violent movements are 2-3 times as successful as violent movements

However, without these seven conditions above or just two to four of them or one or more in fragile existence, the whole of a civilization could collapse, returning it/us right back to Medieval societal hardships when one ruler or small group of “Lords” could easily become sadistic tyrants willing, forcing their subordinates into heinous acts or genocide. From the show:

NARRATOR: At SWPS University, in Poland, Tomasz Grzyb and Dariusz Doliński are revisiting a famous experiment first conducted in the 1960s by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the aftermath of the holocaust, Milgram wanted to understand how seemingly good people could follow terrible orders.

Just as Milgram did, the experiment starts by setting up a fake study.

TOMASZ GRZYB (SWPS University): There are two participants, and there is a guy who presents himself as a professor of psychology, and he says that, “Well, you are a participant in an experiment which is devoted to find out how memory’s working.”

NARRATOR: Grzyb is masquerading as a participant, the so-called “learner.” The other participant is the “teacher.” Grzyb pretends to memorize sets of letters, but his responses are scripted. The teacher is told that the student is hooked up to the machine, and they must administer a shock, if he answers incorrectly.

Because the experiment is highly stressful for the real subject, the so-called teacher, it’s controversial. So, it will be stopped at 150 volts, the 10th switch on the panel, which, if real, would be an extremely painful shock.

Will anyone go so high?

PBS NOVAThis experiment showed that with a powerful authority figure or figures ordering the “teacher” to commit this violence—by fear, coercion, or perhaps blackmail—of the 220 participants, about 90% of them obeyed the orders. Many of us think we would never commit such heinous crimes on another, a baby, child, or adult, but this test and others like it suggest otherwise. Similar to the soldiers of Genghis Khan or the Nazi SS of World War II, all of us have the capacity to commit heinous acts given our personal circumstances and surroundings. Peace and non-violence are not a forgone conclusion.

There were two other fascinating facts the show presented:  1) the Availability Heuristic, and 2) strong Gun Regulations, particularly on assault weapons, cut in half or more, crimes of homicide and mass killings.

Availability heuristic says that a diet of news stories will fool us into thinking that violence is much more prevalent than it really is. This is very much the case with social-media bombardments of a specific (viral?) topic. On the contrary, this very narrow propaganda or sensationalism (for revenues) does not factually represent the overall global or continental trends.

Gun regulations that are widespread and strong, e.g. in 1996 Australia, contribute to significant reductions in suicide, homicide, and mass-killing rates according to these studies, click here.

Cure Violence logoFinally, an international program called Cure Violence, ranked #9 in top 500 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in the world, stops the spread of violence by using the methods associated with disease control. And cities around the world have turned to Cure Violence to prevent violence—from the United States to Latin America to the Middle East. One method utilized in Iraq (based upon Contact Theory) is through a football/soccer league where teams must have players of various ethnicities, religious beliefs, and/or social classes, even if historically opposed, in order to enroll and play the season. In football/soccer their are no national, ethnic or religious boundaries. Players and their families are also encouraged to socialize off the soccer pitch in restaurants and home-gatherings. The soccer league and additional off-field activities have been a huge success! How about that Ark! 😉

If you ever have the chance to watch this outstanding documentary, The Violence Paradox by PBS NOVA, I highly recommend you do it! It is well worth 2-hours of your time and undivided attention. Most of all, it shows us clearly how to understand our lesser nature for violence, but more importantly it gives us proven solutions and methods of stopping the spread of the violence disease and it becoming a repetitive epidemic.


Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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17 thoughts on “21st-Century Humans More Peaceful

    • Indeed John. You’d think that after the well-known propaganda machines of Joseph Goebbels (Nazis of WW2) or that between the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union vs. the U.S. during the Cold War Era that Americans would be able to decipher propaganda bombardment versus actual facts/data-sets. But alas, we are still very much gullible and/or oblivious to these powerful machines, every election year especially. 😔

      Hence, it is also obvious for the last century that our American primary and secondary education systems—in particular the Charter and Private institutions!—are NOT teaching proper critical-analysis, comparing/contrasting, testing, etc, etc, except perhaps in the advance sciences at public institutions.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I was over at Watchtower and he’s telling me because of sodomites and evil that the world is overdue for gods wrath, yet a few paragraphs later he mentions this fact that life spans are longer and murder is down. At record lows worldwide. Coincidentally we are the most secular we’ve ever been. Weird

    Liked by 3 people

    • Watchtower? I vaguely remember that word in a blog-title somewhere, but precisely who/where it is escapes me. Assistance please. 🙂

      Life-spans are indeed a bit longer now around the world, but not at all with white/caucasian males and females in the U.S. Dr. Sanjay Gupta has found that our life-spans are DROPPING! 😮


      Coincidentally we are the most secular we’ve ever been.

      I don’t find it a coincidence at all, yet, I’m sure you were employing the wonderful literary device of sarcasm/satire, yes? 😉 This NOVA documentary pointed out the ONLY relevant part “religions” have played in rising peace, non-violence, and much improved medicine/healthcare. It was this: 2 of the 3 Abrahamic religions are in significant decline! Hence, allowing for a more secular, scientific, and most importantly… HUMANE/humanistic world and life model. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        • Oh yeah! Now I remember him. Pretty polite when it comes to Christian apologists; I liked him. He and I dialogued and debated quite a bit on my 2018 Saul the Apostate series. Well, not the entire 5-parts, strange enough, but only Part II that he was highly focused on (obsessed with?) rather than the whole of the subject. He was indeed interested in pulling my Commentors over onto that “team” blog (multiple contributors) All Along the Watchtower. Oddly he has not returned here since. 🤔

          I had forgotten about him and that blog. Might have to pop over and see what trouble I can find. 😈 😛

          Liked by 1 person

        • It also shows their preoccupation with sex, but handwave violence as a lesser evil.

          Agreed. Sex—whether hetero or homosexual sex—and the long, LONG history of suppressing women’s equality… to mention only TWO horrible, long-standing traditions. (facepalm) 😠

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review of the show, Professor. I watched it last night. I have my doubts about the base statistics used to determine the acts of violence. To claim that we humans are less violent than our ancestors, in the face of so much violence is, indeed, a paradox.

    As an avid reader from a young age and an author, I found the bit about literacy–the influence of novels on building empathy–of special interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point Rosaliene regarding the “base statistics.” I know that gathering those instances, cases, numbers, etc, would have become more and more difficult as one returned further and further into history. To say it was all a very complex compilation and number-crunching endeavor would be a GROSS understatement. 😄 That said, I was thoroughly impressed with the efforts! In particular the part about using 239-years of documented court proceedings encompassing 197,745 different trials. From the transcript:

      NARRATOR: Tim Hitchcock spent 15 years digitizing 239 years of court proceedings.

      TIM HITCHCOCK: They cover the period from 1674 to 1913, and they encompass 197,745 different trials. It is the largest body of recorded speech anywhere in the world.

      NARRATOR: But this giant anthology presents a giant problem.

      TIM HITCHCOCK: At 197,000 trials, nobody’s ever read all of them.

      SIMON DEDEO (Carnegie Mellon University): It’s huge, right? It’s, it’s unreadable.

      NARRATOR: Enter Simon DeDeo, a data scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. He has a hunch that computers can see patterns in history that no human can.

      DeDeo utilized a 19th-century Roget’s Thesaurus for the 127-million words in those documented trials. In earlier proceedings violent words didn’t necessarily fit the charged crime. However, by the late 1800’s and later, violent words correlated with violent crimes…

      TIM HITCHCOCK: In 1909, William Musson was caught trying to steal goods and money from the Commercial Gas Company, but in the process, he also tried to choke, suffocate and strangle one of the guards. In this instance, the robbery itself didn’t figure in the trial to any extent, and instead, what they focused on was the violence of that assault.

      NARRATOR: The records of the Old Bailey are hard evidence of a cultural shift away from interpersonal violence.

      TIM HITCHCOCK: People became much less tolerant of violence. The idea that a pub fight is normal, the idea that carrying a knife or sword was normal, by the early 20th century, people were expected to settle their disputes in ways that didn’t involve breaking a nose or taking out a couple of teeth.

      NARRATOR: A decline in homicides, a retreat from heinous practices and a cultural shift in attitudes, but these data are only for Europe. What about the rest of the world?

      AGUSTÍN FUENTES (University of Notre Dame): Can we actually draw some universal based on the European history? I would say yes and no. No, because Europe is a small backwater for all of humanity, but yes, because in the last 500 years, European philosophical, economic and political systems have spread around the world and had massive impact.

      STEVEN PINKER: I focus on the West, because that’s where the data are best, but if this is a general historical process, it has to be shown worldwide. And in many cases it has been, such as data on rates of death in warfare. That comes from all over the world.

      The show went on to differentiate the numbers slaughtered versus the world population at the time. This metric offers a broader picture of our species violent behavior. The transcript continues…

      STEVEN PINKER: I focus on the West, because that’s where the data are best, but if this is a general historical process, it has to be shown worldwide. And in many cases it has been, such as data on rates of death in warfare. That comes from all over the world.

      NARRATOR: But surely the data from the 19th and 20th centuries would paint a grim picture of the world. From the Napoleonic wars and the Taiping Rebellion, to the massive colonial conquests and two world wars, capped by the dropping of the atomic bomb, how in the world could we be getting less violent?

      STEVEN PINKER: World War II undoubtedly was the most destructive event in human history. But more people were alive in the 1940s than were alive in earlier periods in history, so we also have to take into account just how many people there were.

      NARRATOR: In absolute numbers, World War II may have killed the most people, but compare the death toll to the number of people living at the time: 2.3 billion. Looking at it this way, there were far deadlier events before World War II.

      STEVEN PINKER: When you plot how many people get killed as a proportion of the world’s population, you can appreciate some of these trends.

      NARRATOR: By this metric, World War II falls to number eight.

      The deadliest? The 13th century Mongol conquests launched by Genghis Khan, which reportedly killed roughly 40-million people, almost 10 percent of the world’s population at the time. Of course, that’s just an estimate.

      But there’s one other number worth considering: zero. That’s the number of wars waged directly between the major powers since the Korean War.

      JOSHUA S. GOLDSTEIN (American University): The big national armies are not fighting each other, that’s not some data construction, that’s a fact.

      NARRATOR: Of course major powers have invaded smaller countries and had a hand in numerous civil wars, but overall, deaths from every form of war have been on the wane.

      These data-sets may or may not be 95% factually representative or wholly 100%, however, the sheer effort these scientists and Pinker have put forth in trying to better understand HOW human violence, homicide, massacres, and genocides are on a global scale on the wane is noble indeed! I think it should continue and continue to be more and more accurate and factual. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, it is an outstanding documentary and this post is pretty darn good too. As noted above, we need to focus on the evidence presented and not jump to broad conclusions. Violence has declined over the long-term (i.e. since the advent of civilization), but that doesn’t mean we humans are now peaceful nor does it mean violence won’t increase again. In fact, the documentary identified a correlation between social inequalities and violence; and, inequality has been rising quite dramatically in recent decades. Furthermore, the societal stresses resulting from climate change and political radicalization are likely to trigger increasing incidents of violence.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In fact, the documentary identified a correlation between social inequalities and violence; and, inequality has been rising quite dramatically in recent decades. Furthermore, the societal stresses resulting from climate change and political radicalization are likely to trigger increasing incidents of violence.

      Hear HEAR Robert! Couldn’t agree more! Yes, the show and Steven Pinker did indeed stress that horrible atrocities by humans, individually or as a group/nation, can in fact return us to those brutal, lethal Paleolithic Age skirmishes and battles as well as plummet us back into Medieval Age norms and tolerance of inhumane acts unless we are vigilant in keeping the progress forward then PROTECTING it and the non-violent conflict-resolution methods so we humans DO NOT devolve back toward impulsive, irrational barbarians!

      Wonderful comment Sir, thank you. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I think the more we try to curb violence, the more violent this generation is becoming. The more they want everything politically correct and Utopian, the more the step on Freedom of speech, etc.


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